Over the past few weeks I have led a small group discussion, with seven couples, based upon my friend Mark Driscoll’s book, The Radical Reformission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). The discussion has been both stimulating and challenging. I find it quite hard to demonstrate to these conservative suburban Christians (much like me of course) the central thesis of Mark’s brilliant little manifesto on mission and culture. I think the overwhelming majority of us do not understand how we swim in our particular culture 24/7 and then assume that we can "hear" the gospel clearly in that context. I have come to conclude that this assumption is fatal to grasping the missional church emphasis of Mark’s little book.

As I was praying about last evening’s group meeting on Thursday morning (we discussed chapter four last night, if you have the book, with the title: "Elvis in Eden—A Reformission Understanding of Culture") I asked the Lord to specifically help me make these thoughts as clear and powerful as possible. I then had lunch with two men who are Korean missionaries to the United States. These contacts came via a student of mine whose father is one of the two men. The other man is a family practice physician, who just happened to hear me on the MBN Network program "Open Line" a few weeks ago. He subsequently attended our "Reversing the Secular Tide" conference, November 4-5. These two men were both formally sent to North America to evangelize college campuses as "tentmaking" missionaries. They came here with formal education and a clear commitment to earn their income in the workplace in America while they devoted direct and passionate effort to evangelizing and planting churches that have a missional DNA. This effort has produced hundreds of churches and outreach ministries across the world. These tentmaking Korean missionaries are now in scores of cities in North America.

My two new Korean friends have asked me to speak, on February 11, to their national meeting of Christian workers under the umbrella of this mission, the Univesity Bible Fellowship. Please don’t miss this point. Most all of those in attendance at this UBF conference will be people who have "normal" jobs and thus they will carve out the time to attend such an event through great personal sacrifice. I was delighted to accept this kind invitation and can’t explain how excited I am to meet more believers who have such a deep commitment to Christ’s commission.

Here is the point in telling you this story. Until all Christians realize that planting and growing the church is the work of every member (thus all of us are, in that sense, informal missionaries) we will never get to first base with a biblical missional emphasis. We must teach a new generation to think "missionally" and to believe that God is calling all of them to use their time and talent to reach their neighborhoods and to develop growing churches. More than 99% of Western Christians believe mission is the work of specially trained ministers and missionaries, i.e., it is work of professionals (alone). American Christians are taught to pray for and support such missionaries financially. These Korean brothers, and their families, believe that they can work and live anywhere God sends them. They are "sent" to an area and then seek find work and a home, like true pilgrims. They use their gifts, education, monetary resources, indeed every member of their family, as a means to the end of extending the kingdom of Christ by evangelizing and planting new churches. Sadly, these two men told me that they have found almost no support or interest from traditional churches and missions. Even more shocking, but quite revealing, is the sad fact that Korean American churches think this particular mission is dangerous. Why you ask? These people are not planting and growing churches the right way, i.e., the way Christendom has built churches in the West for centuries.

I know the Korean church movements of Chicago with some measure of firsthand experience. There are hundreds of Korean congregations in our region. Most are very small but all are led, to varying degrees, like typical Western and North American congregations. Most all of them are also badly divided and do not trust one another across local church divisions. There is, simply put, no evidence of serious ecumenism among these flocks. I wonder where they got this DNA?

Please do not tell me that most Christians in the United States understand the idea of the church existing for, and serving, the kingdom of God in mission. Most of us are so immersed in going to church, giving our money to support pastor(s) and missionaries, and investing in all the endless programs that make up church life on Sunday, that we never seriously consider for a moment what Adolph von Harnack said about the church in the first two centuries after the resurrection. The famous historian wrote, more than a hundred years ago, that there can be no serious doubt that the missional actions of ordinary Christian believers were what eventually turned the Roman Empire upside down.

I will say more later about this subject later but I can say now that I came away from lunch yesterday, and the group meeting last evening, deeply impressed that the form my own ministry must take in 2006 and beyond will be profoundly connected to this vision of the church. I asked myself again today, "If every new member were taken in the local church, and at that point commissioned formally to be a missionary, what would be the outcome of such a strategy?" New models and forms of the church would surely have to emerge. New wine would clearly demand new wineskins. I am not advocating that only house churches can become missional churches. That would be a mistake since it would make the means (a form of church life) the end rather than the goal (everyone involved in missional church growth). I do wonder how you feel about this and would value serious input from others who believe, with me, that the North American church is failing to truly engage the missional mandate of our Lord Jesus Christ in our post-Christendom era. I find it much, much easier to argue about arcane theological debates than it is to take this issue seriously. What do you think?

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  1. Nathan December 2, 2005 at 11:08 am

    John, what a thought provoking post. I see the same failings in my own Christian walk. It is certainly easier for me to “argue about arcane theological debates than it is to take this issue seriously” because it is much less challenging to the reality of my identity with Christ to discuss than to do.
    Doing (missional activity in my daily life) requires a certain deep reality to my stated profession of faith. Discussing (primarily if not exclusively between those who already profess to be Christian) is often entertaining, rarely productive, and almost always fails “to truly engage the missional mandate of our Lord Jesus Christ in our post-Christendom era.”
    Looking forward to your post following the February meetings.

  2. Dan December 3, 2005 at 7:42 pm

    This group has been accused of being an authoritarian cult, and allegedly bounced from the NAE. I have no idea whether these accusations are true or false, but here is a link you should at least check out.
    Plese understand that Ihave no dog in any fight that may or may not be going on about this group, I am just reporting what popped up on Google after I read your post.

  3. Steve December 7, 2005 at 12:30 am

    Thank you very much for your article. I have a friend who is an UBF pastor, and I supported him when he went on a mission trip to a large country in Asia this past summer. I have been told by many others that this group is a borderline cult, because of their “undue” influence on its members. I had a friend who, unbeknownst to him, was matched with a woman who was supposed to be his future wife (she had come from Korea).
    Aside from that, I found the pastor very friendly, and one of the most humble man I know. I was most impressed with their ministry because I met a local student who was an atheist, and I tried, unsucessfully to point him to Jesus. But a year later I met him, and his life had been radically changed by the ministry of UBF. This man had suffered great physical and emotional hurt growing up, and it literally was a miracle!
    God is doing some mighty things here at University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. And He used UBF too!

  4. a few more years shall roll December 7, 2005 at 8:10 am

    John Armstrong on living missionally

    I just read this today from John Armstrong:
    Please do not tell me that most Christians in the United States understand the idea of the church existing for, and serving, the kingdom of God in mission. Most of us are so immersed in going to church, gi…

  5. Mark Traphagen December 10, 2005 at 11:04 am

    First off, re: the UBF…I’m not personally familiar with that organization, but I am aware of the large number of Korean students at my seminary. Again, without knowing anything about UBF (and at the risk of sounding like I’m racially stereotyping), I’d say that some of the “accusations” mentioned may not be manifestations of cultic impulses so much as they are typical of Korean culture. I know Korean classmates who are in Korean Presbyterian churches whose lives are under a degree of control and influence that would horrify most of us Americans. While studying full time at one of the most academically demanding seminaries in America, they are expected to be fully engaged in nearly-full time ministry for the church as well as attend every time the doors open (which in Korean churches tends to be rather frequent). I have even had some Korean students tell me that the church will be heavily ivolved in the decision of whom they may marry. Depending on how westernized the student has become, he or she may react against that to varying degrees, but they all agree that it is simply Korean culture manifesting itself in the church. So take that for what it’s worth.
    More apropos of your real topic, I think one of the first hurdles to get past in forming truly missional churches is our deeply ingrained American belief in the “professionalism” of the ministry, which extends to missionaries. To us, a missionary is a person who quits “regular” work to go “full time” into his/her service, thus necessitating the whole support/fund raising machine.
    My wife and I have become discouraged a number of times when we attend a recruiting meeting of a missionary organization visitiing our seminary and hear of the amount of time and effort that is expected out of each of their missionaries for fund raising. Usually this involves pulling them periodically out of their “field” (and thereby disrupting all the relationships they have worked to build) to go on the circuit of their supporting churches to raise more money. The irony here is that the reason given for these people not being tentmakers is so they can “spend more time in their ministry field”!
    As I’m a seminarian yet don’t feel a particular call to the pastorate, here’s what has increasingly become the “dream ministry” for my wife and me: we would settle in a city with a university, buy a house on the edge of the campus, get “regular day jobs” to pay the bills, and then open up our house as a haven for students to come, hang out, eat, drink coffee, and engage us in conversation. Our hope would be to find a church in that city that would be supportive of that endeavor (and by supportive I don’t necessarily mean financially) and a good spiritual home for the new Christians we trust would result from it.
    Now why couldn’t every Christian in every church be doing something like that? I don’t mean they all need to be opening their homes to college students, but simply seeing their homes and jobs as their “missionary outposts,” whether here or abroad, reaching out in whatever way God shows them to their neighbors/co-workers? I would say the two main hindrances to that taking place are 1) the already-mentioned “let the professionals do it” mentality and 2) churches that so sap the time and energy of their members through programs and projects that no one is able to be missional to their neighbors; they don’t even have time to see their neighbors!
    Obviously changing that involves, as you’ve said John, completely rethinking the way we do church in the West. I think I’m going to have to pick up a copy of Radical Reformission for my Christmas break reading!

  6. Steve Scott December 12, 2005 at 3:13 am

    I’d like to propose a different way of looking at our current problem compared to this type of mission you describe. These conservative suburban Christians you mention (much like me, too), when it comes to market economics, probably believe in small civil government and market freedom. In short, many believe in the entrepreneurial spirit. But when it comes to church, most of us have been taught to expect more of an Eastern bloc type of socialism. Class separation between professional clergy & missionaries (party elites) and pew sitters (proles) causes bureaucratic waste and ineffectiveness.
    The short description you gave of these missionaries tells me they are entrepreneurial evangelists, real risk takers. Entrepreneurs make the most of their OWN resources. Socialists abdicate both their resources and responsibility to the state, and in our case the church, and our consciences are falsely comforted by knowing that somebody in the know is doing something. Is it any wonder that Jesus used so many capitalistic economic laws and principles in his kingdom parables?
    I was a charter member of the missions committee at my church a number of years ago. We dreamed of producing our own missionaries and affecting the world for Christ. But I was deeply discouraged at the large bureaucracy that was set up. The fruit has reflected this well. The committee has imploded from ineffectiveness several times and now all our “missionaries” around the world are merely old seminary or ministry buddies of the pastors that have little or no connection with anybody else in our body. This propped up veneer only reinforces the idea that ordinary people aren’t needed, which reinforces the idea that the pastors should do everything, yet the veneer is large so it looks good. Our situation is not unique.
    Our problem is that we have no clue what “freedom in Christ” really means. We think it means we can drink a beer and listen to FM radio, but this is such a small part of that liberty. Resourcefulness, investment, inventiveness, productivity and big payoffs don’t happen in socialistic societies, including when such a society is the church. Learn what liberty really is, teach it to Christian individuals, and we won’t fail.

  7. Dohng-Eun Jong December 25, 2005 at 5:57 am

    UBF has flown under someone’s radar once again. I compiled the list of 21 “neutral party observations about the UBF” listed at http://www.apologeticsindex.org/u08.html. That list is not complete. The complete list can be found at
    Concerning UBF-style arranged marriages (called “marriage by faith” in UBF; they have their own terms for everything), I think it’s a stretch to say that arranged marriages are typical of Korean culture TODAY. How about the authoritarian matching of Caucasian American and German male UBF recruits with women in Korea they haven’t even met? That would be even more atypical in the Korean culture, yet it is typical in UBF.

  8. Joe Chung December 25, 2005 at 9:13 am

    I should start by stating up front that I am a critic of UBF. Before that I was a member of UBF from the time I was born to UBF parents to the time I left the group in 2002, a period of some 34 years during which I occasionally defended the group against an earlier generation of critics in America whom I hated. I will state plainly that the UBF I knew operated as a cult and shunned meaningful relationships with “traditional churches and missions,” calling them “old wineskins” and “old Christians.” Perhaps that explains better why “they (UBF) have found almost no support or interest from traditional churches and missions” and why “Korean American churches think this particular mission is dangerous.”
    You mention Korean congregations being badly divided. I’m going to guess that the two gentlemen you talked to didn’t mention the 3 periods of division in UBF’s own history, the most recent and largest being in 2000-2001 during which the group almost split in half.
    Before adopting the UBF “vision of church” one might ask if this vision is even working for UBF itself. They have had missionaries in North America since about 1974. They moved their world headquarters to Chicago in 1977 and began aggressivly bringing missionaries from Korea to North America. At present the UBF membership in all of North America is estimated generously to be about 700 Korean immigrant missionaries including their children and considerably fewer non-Koreans who were recruited into UBF (this number is estimated to be 200-300). So we’re talking about a total of about 1,000 members in this little sect spread out over more than 70 independent chapters (churches), in over 30 years of operation in North America. Many Korean missionaries have burned out, have become more tent-maker than missionary or have left due to the cultic practices mentioned elsewhere. Many more non-Korean recruits, mostly college students, have left the group due to the “undue influence” and authoritarian control, and it is their parents who have alerted North American cult watchers about UBF. UBF may claim that many people have left the group “on good terms,” this in spite of the fact that they aggressively try to keep people from leaving and the fact that exiting the group is almost always traumatic. Let’s be realistic. Do you have this level of turnover in anything resembling a healthy church?
    John, I’m not going to try to convince you not to talk to UBF. But they need help and advice of a different kind than you thought they did.

  9. Call Me Ishmael February 7, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    University Bible Fellowship? The one founded by Samuel Chang Woo Lee in Kwangju, South Korea? The one profiled in Dr. Ronald M. Enroth’s book, “Churches That Abuse,” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 93-103 (in the chapter titled, “Manipulation and Control—Abusive Churches Use Fear, Guilt, and Threats”), and also in the online Apologetics Index (http://www.apologeticsindex.org/u08.html)? The one that was—despite Enroth’s book—admitted to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1995, but finally kicked out in 2004 when the NAE could no longer deny its cultish behavior (http://www.cultnews.com/index.php/category/universitybiblefellowship )? Do you mean that University Bible Fellowship?
    Just checking.

  10. Brian Karcher February 14, 2006 at 7:22 pm

    Dr.Armstrong: Thank you for your Godly insight into missions! I pray that God may continue to strengthen you to ignite the fire of gospel mission in many churches.

  11. djecki September 27, 2007 at 10:46 am

    Thank for making this valuable information available to the public.S

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